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Is a notice public if public doesn’t notice?

If you read The Observer on Wednesday, you may have seen that Piedmont Natural Gas wants to jack up your gas bill by 13 percent. That’s a big piece of Piedmont’s plan to raise its annual revenues by $80 million.

The company’s proposal was detailed in a large ad taken out by the N.C. Utilities Commission on page 4B. In addition to spelling out Piedmont’s request to the state, the ad announced that a public hearing on the increase would be held Aug. 29 at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse.

And if you read the Observer closely last Wednesday, you probably saw the state Department of Transportation’s ad about toll lanes it wants to build on I-77 from uptown to Exit 36. That ad gave details about open houses and public hearings DOT was to hold that night in Mooresville and the next night in Charlotte about the project.

Increases in your gas bill, hearings on toll roads – that kind of vital information was in the paper because state law requires government to publish certain legal notices in general circulation newspapers. It’s about transparency, and common sense: When the government is considering annexing an area, or rezoning land in a way that could affect a neighborhood, or changing where people vote, it has to tell the public it is doing so.

It has to for now, anyway. The N.C. House was scheduled to vote on a bill late Wednesday that would start to change that. Under Senate Bill 287, Greensboro, Guilford County and all Guilford towns wouldn’t have to publish public notices in the paper. They could just put them on their municipal websites instead. It is widely believed that the legislation could pave the way to make similar changes statewide.

So what’s the problem? Public notices need to be truly public. A daily newspaper’s print audience is far larger than that of a municipal government’s website. And if the notices are going to be moved online, a newspaper’s website reaches more people than a municipality’s. A check of 20 N.C. cities in 2011 found that newspaper websites attract audiences up to 65 times larger than the local municipal website. Hiding public notices on government websites would reduce how much, well, the public notices. And any move to let government operate less transparently should be viewed with great suspicion.

Newspapers have a financial interest in keeping the public notices. But they provide only about 1 percent of the Observer’s total advertising revenue. Backers say the move could save state and local governments money. They probably wouldn’t save much, if any, once they hire the web managers and technicians needed to keep the notices online and in compliance with the law. After all, they are permitted to put the notices on their sites now, but don’t because of the cost, time and effort it requires.

Charlotte was included in an earlier bill. We’re glad to hear Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee say that he wouldn’t support anything that would make city government less open.

“Given the concerns that have been raised, I’m happy to sit down and talk about it and make sure whatever we do, we’re not doing anything to reduce access or transparency in our processes,” Carlee told the editorial board Wednesday. “That runs contrary to what the spirit and intent of the (current) law is. If anything, we want to go beyond the spirit and intent of the law in getting information out to our public.”

Good idea. Lawmakers should kill this bill and replace it with one that requires public notices be made more available, not less.

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